Giant Asian Honeybee: Secret Agent

The concept of eavesdropping to utilise enemy intelligence is one associated with wartime and Government tactics, not the insect world. However it would seem that honeybees are savvier than one might imagine in ‘listening in’ on predator communications.

The giant Asian honeybee (Apis dorsata) is a group of bee commonly found in the South-Eastern regions of Asia, a species that has never been domesticated by humans due to its slightly atypical nesting habits. The way in which this type of bee lives is not its only unusual feature however, as the giant Asian honeybee has also been found to exhibit some particularly interesting defensive behaviour. Of the possible predators that this honeybee must be aware of, the weaver ant is high on the list.

beeant1

Weaver ants drag a captured giant Asian honeybee to their nest.

Many species of ant have been found to deter other insects by means of competition or predation, behaviour which has been observed in many species of ant.  For instance, the weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) is a particularly aggressive species known to attack certain honeybees. The interactions between weaver ants and the giant Asian honeybee have been greatly studied, with previous research showing that when weaver ants attack honeybees, the bees have been found to produce an alarm pheromone to repel other bees from dangerous food sources.

More recently however, studies have shown that not only do these bees use their own pheromones to warn fellow honeybees of danger, but they have also developed the ability to use the ant’s own pheromones to their advantage. Research conducted between the Chinese Academy of Science and UC San Diego has shown that, when presented with flowers appealing to the bees, the honeybees will not only avoid plants with ants obviously present, but they will also avoid locations in which the ants have walked and produced pheromone signals. This suggests that olfactory-based avoidance is possible rather than the bees having to see their potential predators to be aware of possible danger.

The knowledge fits into an increasing understanding of the evolutionary tactics developed by the different species to not only interact with each other, but also essentially use a predator’s own ‘secret signals’ against them.

References

Li, Jianjun et al (2014). Giant Asian honeybees use olfactory eavesdropping to detect and avoid ant predators. Animal Behaviour, 97, pp. 69-76.

Photograph: Apis Dorsata. Viewed 22 November 2014. http://www.vespa-bicolor.net/main/social-bees/apis-dorsata.htm

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Stephanie Rankin

I am an analytical scientist based in the UK with a particular interest in forensic science.

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